Henry's Girls by Alan Stafford
15 May 2007 Afternoon Play 2.15-3.00pm BBC RADIO 4
In 1689, a girls' boarding school in Chelsea put on a concert. The piece they performed was a brand-new opera – Dido And Aeneas. There was nothing remarkable in this except that it was the first English opera ever to have been written or staged.
Based on historical fact, this fast-moving Restoration romp explores why one of England's best-loved composers chose not to write his greatest masterpiece for the professional theatre, but for a gaggle of unruly schoolgirls.
In this Afternoon Play, as the date of the open-air show draws near, it is clear that many of the girls' parents are deeply unhappy with the idea of their daughters behaving like common actresses. Dancing and singing may be useful social skills, but they feel the girls might surely be better employed learning to become housewives.
Meanwhile, for one girl in particular, the arrival of the charismatic Mr Henry Purcell has life-changing consequences.
This production includes many of Purcell's choruses and arias from Dido And Aeneas, performed by a girls' choir and members of the cast.
Robert Glenister, Chloe Annett, Robert Duncan, Brian Bowles and Nicola McAuliffe star.
Henry Purcell: Robert Glenlster
Mrs Purcell: Chloe Annett
Josias Priest: Robert Duncan
Mrs Priest: Nichola McAuliffe
Charlotte's father: Brian Bowles
Charlotte: Naoko Mori
Jenny: Catherine Shepherd
Molly: Saskia Butler
A reconstruction of the first performance of an English opera, Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, at a girls' boarding school in Chelsea in 1689. Why did one of England's most popular composers choose to write his greatest masterpiece for a girl’s school rather than the professional theatre? Stars Robert Glenister, Chloe Annett, Robert Duncan, Nichola McAuliffe. Director Dirk Maggs. Production by “Above the Title” Productions. Recorded at Studio 3, The Soundhouse Ltd, London.
”Dido” was the first English opera ever to have been written or staged. This fast-moving Restoration romp takes an educated guess at why one of England’s best-loved composers chose to write it for amateur performance.
For one girl in particular, the arrival of the charismatic Mr. Purcell will change her life forever. As the date of the open-air show draws near, many of the girls’ parents are deeply unhappy with the idea of their daughters behaving like common actresses. Surely a woman’s place is in the home?
Musical details – the play uses music from “Dido”, and other instrumental pieces by Purcell. Vocal music was all recorded for the production. Singers: Naoko Mori, Catherine Shepherd, Saskia Butler, Robert Duncan; Chorus: Capella Nova conducted by Lindsay Blay. Keyboard: Alan Stafford; cello – Katherine Joyce.
ALAN STAFFORD comments: This is my first venture into period comedy - so it was quite a surprise to see all the female actors tying long skirts around their jeans, so that the mike would pick up the swish of material as they moved.
In my previous play with Dirk (All Fingers and Thumbs) I sat in the control box, while Dirk was in the studio with the actors. This time round I was promoted to a seat in the studio, making it easier to add my own suggestions, which Dirk very generously allowed me to do. It's a fabulous cast and I really admire how they threw themselves into the singing. Naoko has experience in musicals, and Robert Duncan had briefly sung as King Rat in panto. All the same, the music was far from straightforward, but they got it brilliantly - with the help of a strategically placed rear-view mirror, which allowed them to face the mike, while glancing at me on the keyboard for their cue.
Dirk was very quick at picking up anything that wasn't clear in the script, which we quickly amended with the minimum of rewriting. There are numerous shifts of location and snippets of music, which is a lot to pack into 45 minutes. Plus we brought in a 21 strong girls' choir.
Some male writers find it difficult to write for women. I enjoy it - and no-one so far has told me I'm awful at it. My previous play had more females than males - and this one, if you include all the musicians, has 28 women and 4 men.
The play is basically a comedy about the staging of the first English opera at a girls’ school. Robert Glenister (Hustle) plays composer Henry Purcell – and Chloe plays his wife. When I was asked for casting suggestions for this part, Chloe was the first name I came up with. I’m surprised she hasn’t done more radio – because her scenes with Robert were excellent – quite a contrast to the broader comedy of the rest of the play. Just to up the sci-fi quota – the cast also includes Torchwood’s Naoko Mori, who not only acts but sings beautifully. And the director is Dirk Maggs, who directed Hitchhikers Guide series 3 – 5 along with many other radio sci-fi epics.